Let the waterways guide you to a group of islands, richly peopled with ancient art and perfect cocktails
It’s entirely possible to explore the whole of Venice by foot, in literally a few hours. It’s a fascinating maze of gorgeous buildings with boats tied at the canals that lie alongside. Ornate bridges are the usual tourist flocking points, like the Rialto, which has souvenir sellers almost falling over the sides. You can also sign up for a walking tour that takes you through St Mark’s Square, to the Basilica (follow a strict dress code of covering your knees and shoulders), through Campo Santa Margherita the square of cafes, to Squero di San Trovaso, one of the surviving gondola yards. On weekends you can even stumble on to the local farmer’s market where the fishmongers hold court with fresh catches.
This enormous piazza or town square forms the heart of Venice – once the political, spiritual and social centre of Venice. It’s dominated at one end by St Mark’s Basilica, while the palaces of the doges, or the erstwhile rulers of Venice, run off along another side. Besides its awe-inspiring architecture that hails back to the ninth century, the square today is the first point tourists usually start off at. Cafes and gelaterias flank the square, as do museums, souvenir shops and workshops of mask and lace makers.
The little lanes you will be walking past are all packed with little stores selling everything from embroidered fans to ceramic face dolls. Venice’s history seems to have seeped into the shopping as a lot of the stores carry vintage accessories, clothes and artefacts. The nearby island of Murano is famous for its glassware and Murano glass products are available throughout Venice – look for delicate glass earrings if you’re hesitant to carry something bigger all the way back.
There is no way you can visit Venice and not have a gelato! The ice cream is one of the city’s biggest attractions and all gelatarias usually have a long line of eager customers. The Italian dessert rules over all other desserts in the city and different gelaterias have devised unique ways of drawing in crowds. For example the Alaska Gelateria-Sorbetteria serves up fresh seasonal helpings of artichoke, fennel, ginger or asparagus. But for the real deal head straight for Boutique del Gelato, arguably the most famous gelateria in Venice. Hazelnut is what everyone usually orders, but try the pistachio for good measure as well.
Through a combination of water taxis and buses, you can do a quick tour of the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. Tours usually include visits to the main factory where you can watch the glassblowers at work. Burano on the other hand is a village that looks like it was plucked out of a fairytale. Colourful houses line the streets interspersed with shops selling what Burano is famous for – delicate lace work. Pick up doilies and table covers. Most hotels offer free water taxi services to Murano, so ask at the front desk.
From the moment your boat pulls up at Venice, you feel like you’ve pulled into a museum that’s running a 24/7 show live for you. Every corner, every piazza, and every building on first impression comes loaded with its personal history, often stretching back countless centuries. It’s no surprise then that some of the museums and galleries hold the works of the best European art. Right from the medieval ages from the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, to modern artists like Picasso, the walls are alive with master brushstrokes. In some cases, quite literally, as there are as many frescoes as canvases. Head to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the Doge’s Palace, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia. The Venice Biennale has made the city an equally integral contemporary art centre; drop in at the Punta della Dogana to see works by Jeff Koons, Dan Flavin and Rachel Whitetread.
The classic Venetian cocktail is the bellini, a delicious combination of peach nectar and prosecco or Italian sparkling wine. It’s the perfect aperitif, the cocktail that precedes your supper. It was invented by Giuseppe Cirpiani in the 1930s at Harry’s Bar, but you can order it at most of the bars that dot Venice. For views head to the Skyline Bar, or the Narazaria or Bancogiro that faces the Grand Canal. Alternatively you could avoid the crowds and head to Crosera San Pantalon an artsy dive or Palazzina Grassi, a 16th-century palazzo that’s been transformed into a hip design hotel by Philippe Starck.
Forget tapas. When in Venice you need do cicchetti. Olives, tiny sandwiches, assorted bits of seafood or vegetables, polenta and meat are served in small plates accompanying your aperitif. The trick to this is to bar hop your way through a few of them. Start off near St Mark’s Square at Aciugheta which hosts a mix of locals and tourists, and move on to Cantina do Mori, a more old fashioned space. Ask for polpette di carne, meatballs or fried sardines. But the Mori house speciality are their tiny sandwiches, francobollo, which means ‘postage stamp’, essentially stuffed with a variety of fillings.
Sure it’s ultimate romantic cliché – floating down the Grand Canal with a serenading gondolier and the moon up high. The reality is a little more complicated. Booking a gondola for two is a bit more expensive, and privacy is very much a thing of the past. However, don’t let the cynical/practical side of this advice scare you. A gondola ride is a beautiful way to see Venice, a way to relive a lifestyle that’s centuries old. Speak to your hotel to set up a ride, as most properties have deals with the gondoliers. The Istituzione per la Conservazione della Gondola e Tutela del Gondoliere has suggested itineraries, where the most common one is along the banks of the canal by Piazza San Marco – a 45-minute ride that could you upwards of 100 Euros.
One of the many greats from Venice, Antonio Lucio Vivaldi gave the world a soundtrack to Baroque, intricate compositions that seem to reflect perfectly the elaborate formations of the movement’s aesthetics. Listening to Vivaldi in Venice therefore holds a lot of meaning to a classical music lover, and is an exciting experience for those new to Vivaldi. Most teatros or theatres host seasons. One of the more beautiful and unusual ones is at the church – they host ceremonial concerts at various intervals through the year. Look for performances by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and the Società Veneziana dei Concerti.